HSPs, Are You a Chronic Overthinker? Here’s How to Stop

A person holding her head and looking down from overthinking things

Overthinking is like quicksand — the more you fight it, the more you get stuck. Here’s what to do instead. 

You know the feeling: your mind has been going over and over something. You feel like you’re getting nowhere, but you can’t give up on this line of thinking. What if you miss something? How can you know you aren’t overlooking an important detail? How can you know when you’ve thought through everything and can let this matter go. You’re caught in the web of overthinking.

What Is Overthinking? 

Overthinking is when you ruminate on or worry about the same thing over and over. Overthinking, in and of itself, is not a disorder, although it can be associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions. It may be especially common for sensitive people and those who score high in the personality trait of neuroticism. Anytime you have a repetitive thought about a situation, without moving forward to a solution or resolution, you are overthinking. 

Unfortunately, people rarely develop overthinking habits about positive or neutral stimuli. And if we did get laser focused on the joys in our lives, we probably wouldn’t call it overthinking. We’d just enjoy the experience. 

Instead, overthinking focuses on negative, painful aspects of the past and present and our fears about the future. This is an example of what psychologists refer to as the “negativity bias”: our tendency to notice, focus on, and learn more from negative experiences than from positive or neutral ones. 

Our negativity bias — and the overthinking that comes with it — have benefits to us as individuals and as a species. We need to quickly learn what is dangerous in our world and how to avoid it, and we need those lessons to stick in order to move safely through the world. After all, if I need to fall off a cliff several times to learn to avoid the edge, I may not survive to learn the lesson. It’s better if my negativity bias just gives me a healthy fear of falling from the start. 

Where negativity bias and overthinking become problematic is when we extend them to things that aren’t such clear matters of safety and well-being. For instance, if I let one rude comment ruin my entire day and lower my sense of self — or if I decide that, because one chile pepper gave me heartburn, I’ll never eat any kind of pepper again — I’m letting the negativity bias have too much power over my life. This is often when overthinking becomes a constant.

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Why Are Highly Sensitive People More Prone to Overthinking?

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are prone to overthinking because our brains are more active than those of non-HSPs, especially when we are making decisions. We register more sensory subtleties and spend more time deeply processing what we notice. Our brains are naturally churning through thoughts, so it’s not a surprise that we are often chronic overthinkers. We HSPs are particularly vulnerable to overthinking if we are not taking care of our needs for solitude, silence, nature, and movement.

My hunch is that HSPs are also more aware of when they are overthinking than the average person. Since our sensitivity heightens our attention to our experiences, HSPs tend to be very insightful about their psychological functioning. It’s not unusual for a highly sensitive person to contact me specifically to work on their overthinking. They tell me in detail about their thinking patterns and what negative impact they’re having on their lives. By contrast, many of the non-HSP clients I’ve worked with over the years did not even realize they were overthinking, let alone recognize how it affected them.

When Is Overthinking a Problem — and When Is It Good? 

It’s easy to notice what overthinking costs us. It can feed negative mood symptoms, interfere with your sleep and ability to calm down, create conflicts in your relationships or workplace, and damage your self-esteem. As HSPs, overthinking also contributes to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated

But is overthinking always a problem? I don’t think so. As Andre Sólo and Jenn Granneman argue in their book Sensitive, I believe we can lean into our tendency to overthink and use it as a strength. Some of our strengths as HSPs are our ability to sustain deep thought and observation, make intricate connections among seemingly disparate concepts, and persevere in finding solutions to complex challenges. All these things could be considered overthinking — or they could be examples of deep thinking, a sensitive strength. In many cases, they can be either one, depending on the situation. 

The Difference Between Helpful ‘Deep Thinking’ and Harmful ‘Overthinking’

How can you tell the difference? Ask yourself if you feel like your deliberations are moving you forward. Are you getting closer to making a decision, understanding a person or a situation, or accepting a truth about yourself or others? If so, you probably are using your deep thinking to your advantage. 

If you are not moving forward — if you feel like you are caught in analysis paralysis, wrestling with perfectionism, stuck in an emotion, avoiding taking calculated risks, or exhausted from replaying an interaction over and over in your mind — you may be overthinking. 

Still, there is no objective measure of what distinguishes normal thinking from overthinking. You might consider them as part of a spectrum that runs from “not thinking” to “thinking” to “overthinking.” As you move toward the overthinking end of the continuum, pay attention to how you feel: Do you notice tension in your body? A headache or stomach pains? Are you emotionally heightened? These are signs that you’ve entered the realm of overthinking. By contrast, deep thinking tends to be comfortable or satisfying to HSPs, since it comes so naturally to us. 

How to Turn Off Your Overthinking

When you realize that you are heading into the overthinking end of the spectrum (or you have arrived), pause and take a breath. Acknowledge to yourself that you are overthinking, without criticizing yourself. Being aware of when you are overthinking is the start of changing the behavior.

One of my favorite ways to stop overthinking is through metaphors. This technique, drawn from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is designed to help us make fresh, meaningful, personalized connections in how we think and behave. 

Here are two metaphors you can use to turn off overthinking:

  • The Quicksand Metaphor. Maybe the metaphor of quicksand will resonate with you — the more you struggle against overthinking, the harder it is to get out of it. When you can pause and stop fighting your overthinking, you can find a way to get out of the pattern.
  • The Peaceful Stream. Or perhaps it helps you to envision the unhelpful thoughts as leaves in a stream, floating away from you, without you stopping to fishing them out. Finding metaphors that help you detach from your thoughts and realize they are not who you are can make it easier to shift from overthinking to acting.

I use metaphors like this in therapy sessions and in my self-help book, Wander and Delve, to help clients and readers shift themselves out of the stuckness that comes with overthinking. I encourage people to refine the ACT metaphors or even create their own, since the more we work with these metaphors, the more they resonate with us. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

Hope for Overthinkers

As an overthinker, I can promise you that it is possible to reduce overthinking by taking good care of your holistic needs, using metaphors to disentangle yourself, and coming to see your deep thinking as a strength. You can also learn to create structures that help you escape the trap of overthinking — setting deadlines for decisions, getting support for decision making, and highlighting the importance of using your introspection to move you toward action. Cultivating a growth mindset will support all of these changes.

But the greatest hope? You can learn to embrace yourself as an overthinker. Get really clear on how your deep thinking is a strength. Look for the ways that your overthinking has a positive impact on you and the world, a world in which split-second choices and reflexive decision-making are glorified, but nonetheless can have problematic effects on people and institutions. Be the best overthinker you can be and let yourself change the world. 

Want to accept your overthinking tendencies while you learn to break free from the pattern? My book, Wander and Delve, can help you find your unique way to disengage from overthinking.

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